Thomas Rubens has had a hard day. As he travels home on the London Underground he feels the ache of the city but swallows, thinks, hangs himself on the overhead strap, his weight in his knees as he absorbs the slur and imbalance of the ride. Thomas shuts out the mixed odours, concentrates on dust and sulphur, city-smell, time-passing. He thinks of her cat.
Thomas has a place in Holland Park. It's nearer Notting Hill station, but he prefers to disassociate himself from carnivals and trite films, prefers the old, sedate sense he has of the name, when anyone who was anyone didn't want to live in Notting Hill Gate. He applies the word brio (incorrectly) to what he imagines is the place he lives.
Thomas arrives home. Outside, the house is white, the brass letter-box polished, the steps swept, two square garbage-containers butted together and tucked away round a corner. When Thomas couldn't find these anywhere, he had them made. Mrs Flintoff who does for him is asked not to use the green boxes but Thomas feels he must have them, for emergencies. He might sell up and move. Mrs Flintoff takes any rubbish away when she leaves. She queried the idea only briefly, the ten pounds for her trouble rapidly silencing her.
Mrs Flintoff is quiet. Thomas has always insisted on thorough and quiet. Never for the life of him would Thomas understand colleagues who laughed away their idiot, chattering cleaners. They were there to clean, that was all. If Thomas required inane chatter, he said, there was always the television.
Inside, like outside, the house is white, mostly white, with soft creams, vanilla, gleaming, dustless, cedar floors. To the left, the sitting-room, double-aspected, filled with a painter's light, ahead a superb, crisp Poggenpohl kitchen, the immaculate bathroom.
Off the hall, the sweep of pristine stairs, two bedrooms above, both fawn, cream, more light whites, each with its perfect white bathroom en-suite, shuttered, pure.
And to the right, the other room. Her cat.
Thomas considers the possibility of making himself coffee. He could make this carefully—good beans, his best machine—he could make do with instant. Sometimes, before going to the room on the right, Thomas has made a drink, sat in the sitting-room, the once-glorious studio. He has played Vivaldi or Mozart, let either wash over him, the sticky pain of the city, the long ache of his day, swelling from tall, tall speakers, the only darkness in his otherwise whitelight den.
Today, no coffee. Thomas walks up the white stairs into his spotless bedroom where he undresses. Thomas is not fat, nor is he thin. He is not noticeably muscular, but neither is he flabby. Thomas is toned, full, neat, just-so, like his oh-white home.
Naked, Thomas puts his shirt and underwear in the container provided by Mrs. Flintoff. He carefully shakes out his trousers, holding them pinched in his fingers as he lets the shadow of their creases reform, then he loads them into his Crosby trouser-press, switches it on. His jacket fits on the back, his tie goes into a tall cream cupboard and at the bottom of the cupboard, in one of seven square pigeon-holes he leaves his shoes, today's shoes.
It is later, and Thomas is in the room downstairs, the room on the right, opposite the sitting-room. Thomas went in there at one minute past seven o'clock, after undoing the bar, the two heavy Chubb locks. Mrs Flintoff has long understood she does not clean Mr Rubens' last room. It is a photographic darkroom, Mr Rubens said, things in there are too precious and some of the chemicals might be dangerous. To some extent this explains the smell: sharp, acidic, somehow animal. Mr Rubens has told Mrs Flintoff more than once, there's no need, it's safer... and to be sure, he takes the keys with him when he leaves the house.
Her cat. The cat. Sits in the far corner. Nowhere is further from the sitting Thomas, naked Thomas, who occupies the red-leather chair and stares. Her cat.
Now the door is hung with the thick brown drapes, the base softened with taped-on carpet, and there are no scratches. And the cat is silent. It does not, will not, mew. It doesn't cry. Only once did it resort to an utterance, a hiss, a feeble protestation.
Now it sits. Here is a safe as it gets, as far as it gets. Her cat, the cat, has reached stasis. The hunger has almost gone, and the man will bring water, man brings water, man is water. Her cat knows to wait for the water. It does not, will not, mew.
The cat-shit, the dry piss from the first few days, Thomas has decided to live with. He is naked because on the second day he sat in some of the cat's shit and spoiled a suit. He managed not to hurt the cat. Still he has not struck it. And he brings it water.
The important thing, Thomas had decided, was not to be cruel. He would not, he still would not, he will not, hurt the cat. In the first few days there was a problem, the cat, her cat, seeking comfort. He, man, was warm and his clothes soft. The cat when seeking him out had claws and made Thomas angry. He had thrown it away and seen it tumble, dramatic but unhurt, cat's skittle. But the guilt had rolled over, surged up in Thomas, guilt like before, when the her of her cat had meaning.
Now Thomas knows the cat will not approach and he knows, too, he need not strike it. And every night he will sit for two hours with the cat, her cat, give water to it, her cat, her lighter, whiter, slighter cat.
Once he rehearsed his arguments: He had never hurt the cat, except that one time, in the before days. He gave the cat water, gave it a home. It was safe from traffic, from roaming toms, dank piss-marking toms. All he didn't do was feed it.
Food is dead animals, killed animals, whales, horses, maybe dolphins—do you know it's not dolphin—do you? For a second there he almost used a woman's name. She could come round, take the damn thing away. All it would take was a single telephone call. She could come take away the cat. No, I haven't touched it, except for, not hit it or kicked it, nor put it under a heavy bucket in the garden, not locked it in the microwave oven, not grabbed it by the throat and shaken it, none of that. OK, I don't know how to love it, but does it love me, does it, does it?
All it would take was a phone call.
Her cat has sat and hasn't moved and this is good, but afterwards Thomas feels dirty and needs to shower, to shampoo his hair.
At 9:30 Thomas leaves the house, goes by taxi to a small restaurant where he eats alone, lightly, something vegetarian, rich in herbs, and a half bottle of chilled Pinot Noir. Thomas leaves alone too, but walks home, and when he arrives there, he looks at the barred and clasped door, notes the house is silent.
Thomas goes into the sitting-room, now crisp and perfect for his music. He plays Tchaikovsky's 6th, The Pathetique. Recently he watched The Music Lovers. Whenever he hears the 6th now he sees an image from the Ken Russell film, the great composer scalded in a killing bath—but the doctors, his good doctors, had not been cruel.
He listens in an imagined perfect peace. Once there had been a time when this room was less than perfect. The phone rang often. Her cat climbed the drapes.